Optimizing Mental Health in the Workplace

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Saphia Lanier
Saphia Lanier


The most successful organizations don’t just have the best talent. They also prioritize the mental well-being of their employees — because when workers are happy and healthy, businesses benefit. 

importance of mental health in the workplace

Unfortunately, this isn’t the focus for many companies today, and they’re paying the price with reduced loyalty and productivity. According to one recent survey by JobSage, 28% of employees — more than one in four — have left their jobs in order to improve and protect their mental health.

If you want to build a company culture that top talent wants to be a part of, then it’s time to optimize mental health in your workplace. 

What is employee mental health?

Employee mental health refers to the state of an employee’s emotional and social well-being, and your role as an employer in promoting this well-being. At its core, it’s about taking care of your employees and treating them as individuals who need emotional support now and again. This can be through offering regular check-ins, mental health care benefits, and a psychologically safe work environment.

Importance of mental health in the workplace 

Paying attention to the mental health of your workers is like taking stock of your product inventory. You take count of who’s overstocked with work and depleted of energy. Or if other external factors are contributing to their stress or unhappiness.

In doing so, you can catch problems early and take steps to fix them.

A study by Kornferry shows stress caused negative impacts on personal relationships for 76% of workers and loss of sleep for 66% of workers. Another 16% walked away from the job after experiencing stress. 

When you have mentally exhausted employees, it can turn their lives upside down and wreak havoc on your business.

For instance, it can lead to:

  • Poor-quality work
  • Decreased engagement
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Higher turnover rates
  • Reduced employee morale
  • Declining productivity rates

Allowing these issues to go unchecked can have a detrimental impact on your business’s success. It can hurt your ability to reach goals, generate revenue, and scale. On average, people affected by work-related stress lost 24 days of work because of poor health — a prime example of how disregarding mental health in the workplace can hurt your business’s bottom line. 

What causes poor mental health at work?

Dozens of reports show American employees are struggling with mental health issues.

For instance, Workhuman’s study found that:

  • 48% of workers are burned out
  • 61% of workers experienced elevated stress levels
  • 32% of workers felt lonely at work 

Why are employees unable to manage their mental health? It’s partly due to a lack of support. And in some cases, it’s the workplace that creates the conditions that cause poor mental health.

For example, nearly 70% of workers say managers impact their mental health. So if your leadership isn’t equipped to support their workers or how to best manage them, they may play a direct role in overworking and burning out their teams. 

Other causes of poor mental health at work include: 

  • Lack of autonomy: Employees may feel like they have no control over their work. This type of environment can lead to feelings of helplessness and depression, as well as decreased productivity.
  • No recognition or feedback: When employees don’t receive recognition for their work, it can be de-motivating. It can also lead to the feeling that their work isn’t valued, further contributing to poor mental health.
  • Poor management: Some leaders like to micromanage and control their employees’ every move. This can lead to employees feeling inadequate and powerless, or bullied by their managers. 
  • Limited growth opportunities: When employees feel like they’re stuck in a rut, with no way to grow and improve, it can make them feel unfulfilled and depressed. 
  • Lack of a sense of belonging: A workplace culture that’s toxic and noninclusive can lead to some workers feeling excluded and, in some cases, attacked. This can lead to higher absenteeism and lack of engagement at work. 
  • Poor work-life balance: When the boundaries between work and home blur, it can lead to burnout and intense dissatisfaction with work and life overall. Roughly 70% of workers reported feeling at least moderately concerned about work-life balance.
  • Little to no support for workers: If you don’t have policies, programs, and incentives available to empower employees to seek help when needed, then they simply won’t. This leaves them to fend for themselves, which is often a losing game.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat this in your workplace, but first you must know the signs to watch for. 

Signs and symptoms of poor mental health at work

A Gallup survey shows 53% of workers have daily worry, 15% have daily anger, and 27% have daily sadness. But how can you tell when your workers are experiencing poor mental health?

Most don’t come to their superiors to ask for guidance and assistance with their mental health issues. However, this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to spot. 

Here are several red flags you may see in workers suffering from mental problems:

  • Projects aren’t getting done on time by an employee who previously always hit their deadlines
  • Tasks are completed with subpar quality by an employee who previously excelled
  • Social withdrawal or isolation from other team members
  • Mood swings or changes in behavior, such as not being as friendly, talkative, or happy as usual
  • Increased tardiness or absenteeism
  • Increased irritability and anger toward co-workers
  • Complaints of symptoms like headaches, fatigue, or depression

When you see employees with one or more of these signs, it’s time to take action.

How to support employees with poor mental health

You’re seeing the warning signs throughout your workplace — what to do about it? Here are several examples of how businesses support workers with poor mental health. 

Promote allyship

Allyship allows employees to feel supported and connected in the workplace while creating an environment of trust and inclusion. This can be done through initiatives, such as: 

  • Creating mental health allies or peer-to-peer support groups
  • Providing training on how to be an ally and mental health first aid
  • Creating an anonymous mental health resource center (online or offline)

For example, Deloitte launched “Mental Health Allies,” an initiative to encourage employees to be allies for those struggling with mental health challenges. 

Prioritize work-life balance

Educating your employees and managers about maintaining work-life balance is essential to instilling positive work habits. 

Having “The Talk” about mental health is a great first step in promoting mental health among employees. But Shirley Borg, head of human resources at Energy Casino, doesn’t think it’s the most important step.

“We focus on creating a workplace culture that prioritizes work-life balance and mental well-being,” says Borg. “This includes policies for flexible work hours, remote work options, and frequent health breaks. We also encourage our employees to take time off when needed and provide mental health resources, such as counseling services and mindfulness programs.”

Promote diversity and inclusion

Creating a diverse workplace allows your company to be more innovative and creative. But ensuring employees mesh isn’t possible without the right leadership and support. 

It’s ideal to have policies and practices that promote diversity and inclusion among teams. For example, hosting team getaways and events to get to know each other beyond work. 

But don’t just focus on race and background — different personality types also make up a colorful workplace. At Panzura, a multi-cloud data management platform, it’s all about being yourself. 

“Panzura’s ‘Bring your weird’ strategy acknowledges that the most innovative teams bring together the diversity of people and talent,” explains Jill Stelfox, CEO of Panzura. “When people can be themselves for who they are, they feel they belong, and are in the free-thinking zone of innovation. That is key in a rapid-growth startup environment.”

Build a culture around support and advocacy

Giving employees the tools to reach out for help will break down barriers faster. Or better yet, you can provide access to mental health experts to help employees navigate difficult situations.

Michael Raphael dedicated his business, IndeVets, to helping veterinarians with mental health issues. He believes companies need to build a culture of support and advocacy to reduce ongoing mental health problems.

“We developed a flexible work model that allows our vets to choose their own schedule,” says Raphael. “This helps reduce burnout and creates a workplace culture embodying support and advocacy.”

This includes:

  • A “no jerk” hiring/conduct policy emphasizing competence, communication, and collaboration
  • A $1.5k yearly “Choose Your Own Adventure” reimbursement for mental health therapy, massage, gym memberships, etc.
  • A veterinary-focused leadership team to keep the focus on the people IndeVets serves and advocate for staff in the hospital and practice setting
  • Paid parental leave
  • Generous PTO
  • Additional paid time off to maintain continuing education requirements
  • Ample management support and accessibility for all 200+ veterinarians

“We also teamed up with Not One More Vet (NOMV), the industry’s only nonprofit dedicated to improving the well-being of veterinary professionals,” continues Raphael. “We’re the exclusive supporter of Lifeboat by NOMV, an anonymous peer-to-peer crisis service to support veterinarians struggling with mental health challenges.”

IndeVets also hired a veterinary social worker (VSW) who works with its vets on different aspects of their mental health. The VSW provides support for work or personal matters, referrals to mental health professionals as needed, and support in mitigatingcompassion fatigue (a state of emotional exhaustion that can occur when caring for others, often leading to a lack of empathy and feelings of detachment).

They also offer continuing education on compassion fatigue, self-care, the human-animal bond, and grief and loss.

Measure mental health initiatives

Once you have your mental health initiatives and policies in place, it’s time to measure their impact.

“Metrics around wellness initiatives are notoriously difficult to gather due to the confidential nature of the data,” explains Verity Gough, HR journalist and communications manager at MyStaffShop, an employee reward platform. "For us, our digital well-being platform gives HR optics on activation figures, utilization rates, number of inquiries, and consultations for services like counseling.”

Its data is segmented and categorized into access channels, age, and gender demographics, to name a few. It shows whether its people are benefiting from the company’s initiatives.

“For smaller organizations, due to the low number of employees, this data is harder to gather,” continues Gough. “So, in addition to anecdotal evidence, I’d suggest running anonymous pulse surveys as a good way to help generate feedback and get an idea of the effectiveness of any initiatives you decide to put in place.”

When implementing your mental health programs, approach it as an ongoing process. Don’t treat it as a monthly or quarterly task, or you’ll risk losing momentum. Or worse, making employees feel like they’re only seen during monthly check-ins. 

“We have a 365-day approach to well-being,” explains Gough. “We don’t just wait for an awareness day to pop up in the calendar. For us, it’s about continuing the dialogue on the importance of well-being.”

It’s also ideal to have your internal comms team remind workers to take advantage of well-being benefits, perform periodic reviews, and regularly check in to ensure staff is doing well. 

By being there consistently, you show your employees you’re serious about making their mental health a priority.

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